Struggling for a subject for his dissertation in English literature, Matthew Ferrence found an unlikely inspiration: Larry the Cable Guy. A neighbor in Morgantown invited Ferrence, a Ph.D. candidate at West Virginia University, to watch the sleeveless comedian's routine on DVD. Finding it "racist," "sexist" and "problematically bad," Ferrence set out to explore why the good ol' boy attitude appealed to people like his neighbor.
Now an assistant professor at Allegheny College, he's expanded his dissertation into a book, All-American Redneck: Variations on an Icon, from James Fenimore Cooper to the Dixie Chicks (University of Tennessee Press). "Redneck identity functions as the one and true way to separate citizenry and, more sinisterly, guarantee that America is preserved for the normative white, hetero, masculine baseline that has been synonymous with Redneck," Ferrence writes. "In this movement, the Redneck becomes a tool for a broader conservative America, a shifting of the identity from outcast to renegade to mainstream totem."
Some of this book comes from your own background: You grew up in Indiana, Pa., as the son of a college professor. Was it hard to be brainy there?
What can be hard is to convey that combination of being brainy and rural. I had the advantage that when I was 6, my father bought a farm outside of town. He had grown up on a working farm and had always wanted to have a farm. So we actually had an active farm when he was a professor and all our neighbors were rural people, so we were able to be in both those worlds. But there is a perceived conflict between those worlds, which is the image I write about in the book: You can only be one way if you are going to be down home.
You write that you've taken some snark in academia for studying rednecks. Colleges have shifted from teaching classical dead white guys to also teaching black and Hispanic cultures. Is white, rural culture the last frontier?
When I say I researched rednecks at WVU, [peers] would say, "Oh, that's perfect" ... and when I talk about "redneck literature," people always say, "Isn't that an oxymoron?" On the other hand, I think the identity politics of the redneck, that sense of rural pride, are being used to get back to the old dead white guys in a way. There is an anxiety in people who want to maintain the way it was. They wish we could go back to an un-interrogated white-supremacist culture. I don't mean that in a KKK sort of way, but in a way where our culture used to support whiteness above all else. In talking about the downtrodden redneck, you can reinvigorate support for the attitude that used to be canon.
Are rednecks tools?
I wouldn't call any individual person a tool, but I think you can use their attitude to leverage power, and you saw that in the first Obama election. He made some comments about people "clinging to guns and religion." There are reasons to not like those comments, but they were used by people — the GOP — to say, "Look how out of touch this guy is," when they had no agenda of improving conditions for the people being discussed. In fact, poverty is important [to perpetuate] when you are trying to consolidate power.
Was there a point where our image of rural people became so reductionist?
You can even look back to Natty Bumppo, the frontiersman of James Fenimore Cooper. I'm arguing he was doing the same work as "the redneck." He was creating a narrative that was useful for those in power, about how the frontiersman was noble and should have the land that once belonged to the British and the Native Americans.
As we move into the late 19th century, we start to see clearer attempts to manipulate the image of rural people for particular ends. ... The image of a hillbilly, or someone living in Appalachia, changed [depending] upon what those in power wanted from the region. They were seen as pure Americans out there when we hoped for progress. Then we found out there was coal out to be had, and they became dangerous degenerates in the way. They were cast as needing religion when churches wanted to expand into those regions. Because there is no power in the rural poor, their image has been used however it is needed to be used.